Actor says civic-minded impulse drives his battle-of-the-books debate

The Canadian Press
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Actor Jay Baruchel is defending Hugh MacLennan’s “Two Solitudes” during this year’s “Canada Reads” on CBC radio and television. — File photo by The Canadian Press

—TORONTO

Prone to rapid-fire rants and fits of swearing, actor Jay Baruchel admits his stint on this year’s edition of “Canada Reads” will be “an exercise in tongue-biting.”

But the “Goon” actor says he feels a deep connection to the novel he’ll be championing on CBC Radio’s annual battle of the books, which pits five celebrity panellists against each other to determine “Canada’s must-read title” of the year.

The 30-year-old Baruchel is tasked with defending Hugh MacLennan’s classic look at the English-French divide in the 1945 novel “Two Solitudes” (McClelland & Stewart), a book he discovered in high school following the 1995 Quebec referendum.

“Its philosophies are very much mine as well. It’s this beautiful thing,” Baruchel says in a recent interview from his home in Montreal.

“Very rarely have I ever seen what I believe communicated so succinctly by somebody else. And so I can argue on behalf of it ’till the cows come home because what the book knows, I know and I feel in my heart.”

A series of debates starting today will pit Baruchel against hockey commentator Ron MacLean, who will defend David Bergen’s 2012 novel “The Age of Hope” (HarperCollins Canada), and Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Carol Huynh, who will support 2012’s “Indian Horse” (Douglas & McIntyre) by Richard Wagamese.

Biographer and historian Charlotte Gray will push for 1993’s “Away” by Jane Urquhart (McClelland & Stewart) and comedian Trent McClellan will argue for 2009’s “February” by Lisa Moore (House of Anansi).

Baruchel says “Indian Horse,” about the brutal upbringing of an Ojibway boy, will probably be his biggest competition.

“It is kind of, in a way, this really uber-Canadian book because it tells this incredibly heart-wrenching story of residential schools, but through hockey,” he says. “I think it’s a hell of a book.”

And he suspects “Hockey Night In Canada” co-host MacLean will be a formidable debater.

“He’s a student of art and history to such a great extent ... he’s kind of a ninja in that respect,” says the “Undeclared” star, who returns to movie theatres this summer with the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy “This Is the End.”

“He’s disarming and humble and he’s known for being the foil to Don Cherry, so when he comes with these really beautiful succinct observations it kind of catches people off-guard.”

For his part, Baruchel says the whole exercise appeals to his “civic-minded impulses.”

“Any time that I’m asked to do something, no matter how small it might be, to serve Canada, I’m usually very much into it,” says the die-hard patriot, who has a Maple Leaf tattoo on his chest.

“And so if I get one kid in the country to pick up a book, a Canadian book, and read it then that’s at least something. It’s about affecting positive change no matter how small.”

Of course, it should also prove personally enriching, he adds, admitting that he wasn’t too familiar with most of the other books in the debate.

On top of brushing up on Canadian literature, Baruchel says he’s busy working on a followup screenplay to his hockey comedy “Goon,” and preparing to take the stage in Montreal for the play “Sherlock Holmes.”

Inspired by the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s billed as “a fresh take on an unrivalled classic.”

“It’s supposed to be a more pure, kind of old-school (interpretation), closer to the Doyle Holmes than audiences have been used to seeing for a while,” explains Baruchel, who says he hasn’t performed on the stage since he was 17.

“There’s some really cool stuff with connecting Holmes and the characters and his world to actual historical events from that era. So I’m really excited.”

Then there’s the long-planned wedding to fellow Canadian actress Alison Pill, which was expected to take place last year but didn’t.

Baruchel says they had a date and location all worked out — last September at a Quebec winery — but just didn’t have the time or energy to follow through.

“Unfortunately, we’re two busy people who are intrinsically lazy. So in our free time the last thing we want to do is book flights and organize hotel rooms for people,” he says.

“But it’ll happen at some point.”

The four-day “Canada Reads” debate kicks off in front of an audience today in Toronto.

Four hour-long battles will air on CBC Radio One each morning and be streamed live at cbc.ca/books, with an on-demand video available every afternoon.

And the debates will also be aired on TV — on the Documentary channel each evening, with an encore presentation the following afternoon on CBC-TV.

Baruchel says “Two Solitudes” is “miles above any of the books in the competition,” making his job pretty easy.

The challenge may be in reeling in his emotions.

“It’ll be an exercise in tongue-biting, but I also was on the debate team in high school and so I have been trained since I was, like, 16 to take issue with my beliefs before anybody else could,” he says.

“And I think I know what the main criticisms are going to be and I know how to answer them. But who knows? I might get voted off on Day 1. We’ll see.”

Organizations: CBC Radio, HarperCollins Canada

Geographic location: Canada, Quebec, Montreal Ojibway Maple Leaf

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